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Sad Farewell to ‘IP’: Is CNN Giving Up on Serious Political News?

“Inside Politics,” CNN’s flagship political show, won’t cease to exist Friday when Judy Woodruff steps down as anchor. It will take another month or so before the show ultimately expires. But Woodruff’s exit is a jarring reminder that the era of “IP,” television’s first daily program devoted solely to raw politics, is all but over. [IMGCAP(1)]

As someone who had a long association with the network and “Inside Politics” (I was under contract with CNN for many years), I’m disappointed with the network’s decision to cancel the show, rather than rework it.

Apparently, my view is shared by other political junkies, as well as a number of current and former CNN insiders, who view the cancellation as a signal that the network’s commitment to politics isn’t what it once was.

The show’s ultimate replacement will be a three-hour program hosted by the omnipresent Wolf Blitzer. Blitzer enjoys politics — I’ve worked with him many times over the years, including on Election Night — and I’m sure he’ll spend plenty of quality time on the subject.

Moreover, CNN/US President Jonathan Klein told me that each hour of the new program “will have its own distinctive flavor,” with the first hour emphasizing politics and the second hour emphasizing national and homeland security issues.

“We aren’t going to do less politics, we are going to do more,” one insider stressed repeatedly. “Politics is very important to CNN. We aren’t going to lose that brand.”

But in an era when “branding” has become the byword of marketing, CNN is on the verge of dumping a political brand that is close to irreplaceable. It would be as if the Yankees released Derek Jeter or NBC cancelled “Meet the Press.”

No decision has been made about whether the “Inside Politics” name will appear anywhere in the new show, but Klein’s comment to me that “the name isn’t as important to preserve as intelligent, insightful political coverage” tells me it won’t.

Klein insists that the network needs to “start from scratch” in reassessing how to cover politics — “we don’t need tweaks [to ‘Inside Politics’], we need fundamental change in how we cover politics” — and that tells me he’s ready to throw the baby out with the bath water.

We’ll simply have to wait until later in the summer to see what kind of show ultimately emerges. But unless the network truly stakes its claim to political coverage with the new show, many will see the end of “IP” as a white flag of surrender by CNN to Fox News Channel and even MSNBC when it comes to political coverage.

A Washington-anchored show that covers politics but also reports on Michael Jackson’s legal troubles or the latest car chase in Los Angeles won’t convince “IP” fans that CNN is serious about protecting its political turf.

“Inside Politics” first hit the air in October 1987 and lasted through the 1988 elections, when it went on hiatus. It returned as a regular daily program before the 1992 elections, and the next year Woodruff joined the network, immediately joining Bernard Shaw as co-host of IP.

Over the years, “Inside Politics” has alternated between being a half-hour show and a full-hour program. For a time in the early 1990s, it was rebroadcast in prime time and even at midnight. But whenever it has aired, it has delivered political news and analysis in a straightforward manner. Its ratings have held steady.

Yes, the program has been aimed at political insiders and junkies, guaranteeing that it would never have mass appeal. It is the ultimate “niche program,” but what a niche it is. The show is a “must watch” for political activists and opinion-makers, so it makes up in the quality of viewers what it may lack in quantity.

And I’m not talking ancient history. Less than a week ago, minutes after “Inside Politics” ended on May 25, I received an e-mail from National Republican Congressional Committee Communications Director Carl Forti blasting House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) comments on “IP.”

In leaving CNN, Woodruff is following a path already trod by a long list of anchors and reporters, from Shaw and Frank Sesno (who is back with CNN in a very limited role as a special correspondent) to Gene Randall and Charles Bierbauer, all seasoned, talented TV journalists who spoke with experience and authority about government and politics. In some respects, they still haven’t been replaced.

While I hate to see “IP” go, I’m almost relieved that it is being retired before the network devalues it further.

Recently, network executives added an embarrassing segment on Web logs to “Inside Politics,” and according to Klein, the network “will continue to enhance and expand our coverage of the blogosphere.” Clearly, CNN management doesn’t understand why people watch “Inside Politics” or how valuable the show is to the network. People who really care what the blogs are saying are going to be reading them rather than watching someone else read them on “Inside Politics.”

For a network with major, major problems in its prime-time schedule and a head-spinning turnover of top executives in recent years, you would think that CNN’s senior management (as well as Time Warner’s) might spend more time trying to correct past missteps (and there are plenty of them) rather than making new ones.

CNN insiders insist in the strongest of terms that the demise of “Inside Politics” doesn’t indicate a change in priorities for the network. I hope they are right. But it’s hard to ignore the symbolism of the program’s cancellation.

Sadly, the cable network that was once synonymous with political coverage must now convince skeptics both inside the network and outside that it is still serious about covering public policy and politics.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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